Under new ownership, Rolling Stone is changing. Six months after Penske Media Corp. acquired a controlling stake in the company, Rolling Stone says both the magazine and website are getting “complete makeovers.” Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal talked with Gus Wenner, Rolling Stone’s president and son of its founder, Jann Wenner, about his plans for the 50-year-old magazine and the brand his father built. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: What is it that you are trying to do with this magazine now? First of all, we have to point out it’s like twice as old as you are.
Gus Wenner: That’s very true.
Ryssdal: So you grew up with it?
Wenner: I did. I did. I grew up with it. We are trying to evolve it and turn it into a incredibly important brand for today’s generation.
Ryssdal: Which is interesting because that’s what you were for a lot of the ’70s and ’80s. I mean, your dad built this thing into a cultural force. So give me a thumbnail version of what happened? Because it’s been a while since you’ve been — it’s going to sound worse than I mean it to — relevant.
Wenner: Well, I mean I think that he, first of all, what he did is unbelievable. I still feel so fortunate to be in the position that I’m in.
Ryssdal: Oh yeah. Borrowed 7,500 bucks and built an institution, truly a cultural institution in this country.
Wenner: Yes, absolutely. And I think that it was founded at a time where music was kind of bursting at the seams and counterculture was in full swing, and he discovered that music could be a very powerful vehicle to enact change in this country. So I think over the years culture changed, and he had a very specific worldview, and I think it’s kind of ebbed and flowed and remained very important and critical but in different form and fashion and not right at the center of zeitgeist per se.
Ryssdal: It is a different corporate environment now, for you and your dad. The magazine has been sold, the operation has been sold. You are employees now of the owners of this company. What does it feel like, and does it change how you do what you do?
Wenner: It changes in the sense that we were able to find a partner to allow us to capture the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we have with a brand this meaningful and this powerful. And the last two years I spent pretty much every day getting us to the point where we could find the right partner to focus on this brand. I don’t know how much of the back story–
Ryssdal: Well let’s go into it a little bit. Because you are the guy actually who drove these sales, right? The first one to Bandlab, and then the Penske Media.
Wenner: Yeah, and I mean it started with selling US Weekly.
Rolling Stone President and COO Guss Wenner talks with Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal.
Wenner: Then it was selling Men’s Journal, which was another magazine we owned. And the philosophy behind it all was those were great magazines, but I just didn’t quite see how they could be more than that. And I think to thrive in today’s environment you have to be more than just a magazine.
Ryssdal: And now you’re betting the ranch on the prime property basically?
Wenner: That’s exactly right (laughter).
Ryssdal: He says with a deep breath (laughter). The new sort of revitalized Rolling Stone went on newstands last week. Right?
Ryssdal: But you’ve got a copy of it. Can I take a quick peek?
Wenner: You can take more than a quick peek.
Ryssdal: All right. I’ll take a long peek.
The July 2018 cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.
Ryssdal: Oh it feels different actually–
Wenner: Feels very different.
Ryssdal: –which we’ll get to. So it’s Cardi B on the cover.
Wenner: And Offset.
Ryssdal: A very pregnant Cardi B.
Ryssdal: So I want to talk about the way this thing feels, because it’s different. It’s heavier paper, and it’s just different. But why stay with the printed product in a digital age?
Wenner: Well I think that you need to have — if you’re a magazine, which is our history and our DNA. And it’s not the future of who we are, but it’s the foundation of who we are. It needs to be a great product.
Ryssdal: An actual, physical product?
Wenner: An actual, physical product. We want the magazine to be strong. And that’s why we took it back to its oversized format, almost doubled the sort of quality and thickness of the paper, which you feel.
Ryssdal: Yeah you can. And it’s expensive. Right?
Wenner: It’s expensive.
Ryssdal: This cover, this fancy feeling thing cannot be cheap.
Wenner: No. But we want to put a premium quality product in the marketplace. And I don’t think we can truly build great businesses around it unless our core DNA product isn’t as strong as it needs to be and should be.
Ryssdal: How come you’re the guy who was driving this, and how come your dad didn’t reach out to somebody else?
Wenner: Well I mean when I came into the business the digital piece was very small.
Ryssdal: And you came in to run digital we should say,
Wenner: Yeah, I mean, I came in to sort of shadow the chief digital officer at the time. And I didn’t come in thinking I’m going to run this company. I came in thinking, I believe so much in what this thing stands for. It’s so a part of who I am, and in my opinion, the fabric of culture. In order for it to evolve and succeed we need to grow our digital property, which we really started doing, and from there and my responsibilities grew became clear we needed to do more than just that.